Carpe Diem

Sculpture in Thorvaldsens Museum, Copenhagen, Denmark. Sculptor: Bertel Thorvaldsen

They’re not that different from you, are they? Same haircuts. Full of hormones, just like you. Invincible, just like you feel. The world is their oyster. They believe they’re destined for great things, just like many of you, their eyes are full of hope, just like you. Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable? Because, you see gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils.

But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. Listen, you hear it? — Carpe — Hear it? — Carpe, carpe diem.

Seize the day boys…

Make your lives extraordinary.

For those unfamiliar with the above reference; it comes from the 1989 movie Dead Poet’s Society. In this famous scene, An English teacher by the name of Mr Keating [Played by Robin Williams] encourages his students to “make your lives extraordinary” — a sentiment he summarizes with the famous Latin expression carpe diem.

O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?” Answer. That you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play *goes on* and you may contribute a verse.

What will your verse be?

A terrific movie really that’s worthy of anybody’s attention if you haven’t yet seen it—showing the all too familiar clash between the types of people who would rather live for the now and seek to:

“suck out all the marrow of life. To put to rout all that was not life; and not, when I had come to die, discover that I had not lived.”

Against those who would rather align with tradition and security—characters who pay closer attention to those human frailties that have played out on the grand epic canvas of the human saga. The types who value the trodden paths of familiarity that guides the many into prosperity and security; so that one needn’t fall into traps that have played out plentiful times before.

“Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire”

Right now, i’d like you to think of your own position on such matters. Are you the type of person who values tradition and trodden paths? Or rather someone who values exploration and unfamiliar paths? Please, take a moment to lay it out. It will probably help you understand this concept a lot better if you’re clear about your own position.

Whatever it means to choose one and potentially defy the other, is something abstract that has the tendency to piss off a lot of people if misunderstood. It can easily amount to great family conflict if a child chooses to defy the will of their conservative parents with nonsensical dreams. It could even amount to inner suffering if a person becomes lost and without purpose if their solitary wandering in life bears no fruits. And what of the social impacts of such thinking? Is it not tradition that forms the spine of any strong system? Then what of the lone wanderers? What are they to this strong system? Sometimes they’re its leaders and heroes but more often than not, they’re its inexorable misfits.

Whatever on earth this notion is that I’m rambling about here, highlights a human tendency to form allegiances to these abstract concepts. A genuine divide between men who dig in around the walls of tradition and stick to those well-trodden paths of familiarity with those who would rather explore their own paths and determine the worth of their values after self-evaluation.

Traditionalists vs Hyper-individualists.

When Mr Keating, in the movie Dead Poets Society advocates his students to seize the day—he’s certainly not advocating a generation of hyper-individualists. But rather; characters who occupy the middle ground. Free-thinkers who can look beyond the walls of tradition and evaluate the worth of ideas on either side. “There’s a time for daring and there’s a time for caution, and a wise man understands which is called for.”

“Boys, you must strive to find your own voice. Because the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are to find it at all. Thoreau once said, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Don’t be resigned to that. Break out!”

Tradition ironically has a tendency to make people forget. With the passing of time; and unwavering obedience to customs—its often easier for its adherents to simply obey concepts than to grasp the significance for their origination. With likely no more of an explanation for this behaviour than its sheer simplicity and self-evident worth. Adherents to such systems naturally must fear the types of characters who courageously step outside of these boundaries. For the free-thinker can so easily point out the flaws of a society and turn against her. And as the famed philosopher Socrates grasped in those final hours on earth—the crowd typically has no patience for those who seek clarity in life above all things.

So what can be said of these free-thinkers? Socrates would be the first to admit they typically don’t know very much. There is a painful arrogance that often comes from the free-thinking intellect. Tradition is the stable rock that has proven its worth in deed and stability—the free-thinker is quick to convince others that they have stumbled upon that whopping new idea that is so often worth pushing that rock off the cliff to start anew—much to the anger and frustration of those who can see how reckless such an act could be.

An eye towards the future

 
And how does this thinking affect our future both on an individual level and on a social level?

Let’s consider the types of people who can look beyond the moment to create a better future for themselves by standing tall upon that lofty rock in an effort to mark destinations of one’s choosing.

In some rare cases, this mindset can even extend itself to selfless extremes in its servitude towards the future—demanding at times the literal sacrifice of one’s own respective journey; in a willful effort to ensure the prosperity of something that will live beyond themselves. “Charge for the guns!” — “Into the valley of Death!”

We must all be grateful for those who have toiled on their own journey; and looked beyond themselves in a willful effort to leave our lands in a much better position than they themselves once received it. Because it’s quite clear that many don’t care for such thinking.

And I do wonder how much of this has to do with some of the points I’ve already covered above.

Think about it. The type of individual who comprehends the toil his ancestors must have performed to leave a prosperous order to their future inhabitants is also likely to understand their own subsequent responsibility to pass on this favour to the future in turn. This demands a particular allegiance to a certain set of principles, one that requires an individual to selflessly commit towards for the betterment of their collective order. This quite literally demands an eye towards the future and past. To various different degrees, I’m sure.

But the same can’t be said of the hyper-individualist. While they could have their eyes on the future as well, it’s certainly not demanded of them. A lone soul can quite easily choose to focus exclusively on the interests of their own predicament; paying little attention to distant futures or vital lessons of times past. ‘Live life like there’s no tomorrow’ could perhaps be said to be the official motto for the type of people I’m referring to here. But when a person commits to living life in the present like there’s no tomorrow. They must, by virtue, neglect the concept of tomorrow.

There’s a funny moment in an old Simpson’s episode that does a good job at highlighting what I mean by this. In this episode, Marge is busting on Homer for not spending enough time with the kids—a problem she feels Homer is going to regret later in life when they’ve one day moved out. Homer hilariously responds:

“That’s a problem for future Homer. Man, I don’t envy that guy”

Before proceeding to down a cocktail of vodka and mayonnaise and collapse into a drunken slumber.

Homer Simpson pouring vodka into a jar of mayonnaise

And make no mistake, there are real consequences that arise from such thinking. (Particularly the strain on one’s digestive system when under threat from a vodka and mayonnaise cocktail) But jokes aside, I’m speaking of the real-world consequences that must play out when these allegiances become imbalanced—leading to inevitable troublesome outcomes.

And why wouldn’t it?

If a person neglects the future in their thinking, they will eventually have to encounter a realm in which they will need to come to terms with this fact. As those famous Pink Floyd lyrics went:

“And then one day you find ten years have got behind you, no one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.”

How many of us so often believe that our future will be prosperous and advanced while doing next to nothing right now to ensure that future?

What am I getting at here you ask?

“What is at stake is far from insignificant: it is how one should live one’s life.” — Socrates

Let’s look at this another way briefly. How often have you been frustrated with the fact that your nation’s leaders haven’t adequately planned ahead, seemingly neglecting adequate foresight? “Why didn’t our country invest in high-speed rail 20 years ago?” “Why is our Government reinvesting in fossil fuels with the clear damage that it is causing this planet?” “This Government is only thinking of its own term, and not of the long-term consequences!”

Such issues are often looked upon as external problems. Issues caused by someone else’s hand—and not of our own. How easy it is, to dismiss looking inwards to blame such obvious outward problems.

But what if, like Homer, this blatant disregard in thinking carefully about the concept of tomorrow (5 years from now, 10 years from now, 20 years from now…) is the very precedent that leads to placing characters of equal standing into positions of leadership? Do these leaders of ours not firstly gain the approval of their voters? Could it perhaps be the case, in democracies at least, that the will of the people is so easily won over by Carpe Diem rhetoric? That perhaps it is we, the individuals, who so often internally lack the appropriate balance towards respecting the past, present and future that would directly contribute towards the calibre of guardians we sanction to look over us?

What I’ve attempted to show here is that the notion of not thinking ahead in one’s own conduct, isn’t limited in its misfortune towards yourself—but rather, plays a significant role in propagating problems for us all.

What if it turns out, that this concept highlights a metric of importance that we’ve yet to observe seriously as a society?

What if it turns out; that the energies we so often exert in anger towards external problems actually stem from ourselves refusing to look at our own imbalances?

What if it turns out; the citizenry that can find the right amount of internal balance towards understanding the past, appreciating the present, and tending for the future is the most likely to be successful at choosing great leaders to run its nation?

What if cultures who have fallen to ruin in history can be proven to have placed too much importance to the needs of themselves at the expense of acknowledging the importance of these concepts—which lead to sudden and irreversible misfortunes?

“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” — President John F. Kennedy”

This isn’t an easy concept to layout, and I apologise if I’ve failed to make myself clearer. But If I still have your attention, I would like to summarise the significance of this hypothesis.

I genuinely believe these fundamental differences in human purpose; and the allegiance we each place on these respective concepts—past, present and future—inadvertently perhaps—leads to friction, misunderstanding, conflict, internal suffering and our relationships with one another.

Firstly; before I attempt to explain my reasoning for making such a claim. I don’t believe for one minute I’m adequately qualified to grasp the complexity of these concepts. Never the less, I do believe I’ve stumbled across some valuable takeaways from this topic that are worthy of note. So, let’s give it a shot and let the pieces fall where they may.

“A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”

What even possesses a person to serve an age that they surely won’t be around to cherish? What possesses founding father types to go to great lengths to serve the future at the expense of their own immediate potential gains? Why toil and sacrifice elements of your own fleeting existence to aid a realm beyond your own perception? Could legacy have anything to do with it?

Men are haunted by the vastness of eternity. And so we ask ourselves: will our actions echo across the centuries? Will strangers hear our names long after we are gone, and wonder who we were, how bravely we fought, how fiercely we loved?

Odysseus with a dog

While men can comprehend their own mortality—stories and fables have taught them that immortality is quite achievable through great deeds and subsequent legacy. To contribute a verse on that great human play that will be sung by living souls long after one’s departure.

However; Marcus Aurelius once had the following to say about such things:

“People who are excited by posthumous fame forget that the people who remember them will soon die too. And those after them in turn. Until their memory, passed from one to another like a candle flame, gutters and goes out. But suppose that those who remembered you were immortal and your memory undying. What good would it do you? And I don’t just mean when you’re dead, but in your own lifetime. What use is praise, except to make your lifestyle a little more comfortable?”

“Words once in common use now sound archaic. And the names of the famous dead as well: Camillus, Caeso, Volesus, Dentatus… Scipio and Cato… Augustus… Hadrian and Antoninus, and… Everything fades so quickly, turns into legend, and soon oblivion covers it. And those are the ones who shone. The rest—“unknown, unasked-for” a minute after death. What is “eternal” fame? Emptiness. Then what should we work for? Only this: proper understanding; unselfish action; truthful speech. A resolve to accept whatever happens as necessary and familiar, flowing like water from that same source and spring.”

Statue of Marcus Aurelius on his horse

A little stoic insight from the famed emperor there to provide us with a different angle on the concept of legacy.

I would argue, that there are plenty of people in this life who would agree with the lacklustre nature of legacy; and subsequently, lack the need to serve an age beyond their own—perhaps not so openly, in fear of the judgement of the crowd. But through their deeds, their allegiance is legitimately so.

So with that right there, I must identify the first faultline of potential conflict.

The difference in what these characters value internally will inevitably cause friction with characters of opposing positions whether they each know about it or not. And how could anybody be surprised by this predicament?

These camps of opposing thought breathe the same air, reside upon the same soil and share the same laws of the land. They’re neighbours, colleagues and fellow countrymen. But internally; they’re none of the sort. They oppose each other in willful intent—disagree with one another over the appropriate acts of human conduct in life—share different narratives about the human tale—plot against each other via political standings. When some of these people enter the ballot booth, they think of the effect that this vote may have upon that grand canvas of the human story. While many needn’t even turn up to the ballot station in the first place—their internal position on such matters permits it.

How is it not apparent that some of these differences could be sourced to the internal value one places towards understanding the past, enjoying the present and serving the future?

Grasping the balance

 
What can be said of all this? Is there an optimal balance of inner calibration towards these matters that typically produces a more capable and healthy individual?

Is it not self-evident that an individual or a society that never looks backwards will fall into the common snares that have befallen mankind across the ages?

Is it not self-evident that an individual or a society that neglects its future will inevitably resent itself for its lack of foresight?

Is it not self-evident that an individual or a society trapped in tradition will be paralyzed to adapt to rapid change and unfamiliar developments?

Is it not self-evident that an individual or a society that loses its appreciation of life and love will be the likely perpetrators of dissatisfaction and bitterness?

A man screams to the heavens as his home lies in ruins in the background

I can’t say that I’ve entirely concluded my thoughts on this matter (This is a relatively new hypothesis of mine after all) But in an effort to get us off the starting line, I would say that anybody who is exclusively loyal to only one of these factors is negligent and likely contributing to some form of suffering—whether they’re conscious of the fact or not.

We know that it is advantageous to know the stories of our past—for they reveal the common pitfalls of man and the arduous suffering that has been necessary to transcend our past transgressions.

We know that it is advantageous to honour traditions which have proven their worth across vast stretches of time.

We know that it is advantageous to be true to the moment and to suck out the marrow of life—to appreciate beauty, romance and love which is to relish precisely what we stay alive for.

We know that it is advantageous to plan for the future—to lay down those seeds that will provide those fruits of tomorrow, even if we may never be around to taste them. For it is what our ancestors have done for us, and it’s what is necessary for any strong society.

But for anyone to turn a blind eye to either of these concepts for the exclusivity of one; is doing so to the decrement of another—and that neglected concept may be of critical importance to the wellbeing of the self or society at a particular given moment in time.

I’ll close with this.

Spare a conscious effort towards all of these directions within your own ability. I can’t see why this wouldn’t be right. To find what Aristotle would call that Golden Mean. Realise that deficiencies or excess positions on this matter are direct contributors to confusion and conflict. Seek that Golden mean, which involves finding the right balance between an appreciation of history and learning her stories, living in the present and finding joy and gratitude in what you’re presently able to experience and lastly, to spare a thought for the path ahead—learn of sacrifice and how its social adherence has provided prosperity. Pay your humanity tax and care for those days that you may never witness.

Don’t ever allow somebody to say you were willfully blind to any of these concepts and passive in their respective abandonment.

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John Fee

John Fee

A British Army veteran and security specialist with over a decade of international security experience. Student of Peace and Conflict studies. Adolescent stoic, fond admirer of Western culture, practitioner of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and an earnest traveler.

3 thoughts on “Carpe Diem”

  1. When looking back in historic fashion we find that one thing is true and is at the center of great societies (at least before they degrade and implode) and people, balance. Balance in thought and action. Extremism in one direction or another leads to eventual failure.

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